Still having trouble figuring out shutter speed? Some images simply require a certain shutter speed in order to be possible at all. Shutter speed doesn’t just control the amount of light that gets into your camera, it is also used to freeze motion, create silky smooth waterfalls, or blend light trails. If you’ve always wondered which shutter speeds to use with certain types of images, look no further. This tutorial is for you.
Before we look at some individual shutter speeds, we should talk about shutter speed in general. What is it? How does it effect your images? Shutter speed, very simply put, is the amount of time your camera lens is open and exposing your image sensor to light. After that period of time is over, your shutter closes, and the photo gets processed and saved on your memory card.
You might remember stories of old time photography when people had to sit still for several minutes at a time just to get their portrait taken. That’s because, back then, they had to keep the camera open and exposed to light for a very long time in order to get an image. With such long shutter speeds, any movement captured would result in a blurring effect in the photo. That’s why you had to stay absolutely still.
This is an important lesson to keep in mind. Different shutter speeds produce different amounts of blurring. At a super fast shutter speed, you have practically zero blur, but at a very slow shutter speed, you have much more blur.
It’s hard to get an idea of this unless you look at some individual shutter speeds. So let’s do that. We’ll start from the fastest going to the slowest.
Shutter speeds and photographic effects
1/500 of a second
It would take 500 of snaps of the shutter to get just one second. That’s incredibly fast by any standards! At this speed, you’re taking your picture in a fraction of a fraction of a second. This speed is so fast that your subject is guaranteed to be completely frozen in the frame. That’s why it’s ideal for sports photography or anything where you’re trying to freeze the action.
Of course, for as cool as this fast shutter speed is, it’s often difficult to achieve when there isn’t a lot of light outside. The shutter opens and closes so fast that most of the light doesn’t have the time to get into your camera. To remedy this, you may need to decrease your aperture f-number or increase your ISO speed. Both increase the brightness either by letting in more light or making your camera more sensitive to light. This ought to give you some extra room to work with.
1/250 of a second
This is a sort of in-between shutter speed. It’s not perfect for action photography, but it’s not as if you can’t take pictures with motion using this setting. At the very least, it wouldn’t hurt to try. Otherwise, 1/250 of a second is good for midday portraits or landscapes when you don’t have a tripod. This shutter speed is fast enough to cancel out any kind of blur that might come from shaking your camera, so it’s good for its versatility as well.
I personally like to use this shutter speed to photograph the sunset. I don’t know what it is about this speed in particular, but it always seems to do a good job of capturing the oranges and purples in the clouds as the sun goes down. Granted, 1/250s only works for a certain window of time, but it does wonders during that small window.
1/125 of a second
We’re starting to get into a slower range here. At this speed, you’re still okay to take pictures with no tripod. I like to use this one later on in the day when the sunlight isn’t as intense. It isn’t particularly interesting from a motion blur standpoint. Most objects don’t blur that much at this setting. In any case, it’s just a good shutter speed to use on overcast or lowlight outdoor shooting situations. It’s ideal for those really cloudy days.
1/60 of a second
At this shutter speed, the blur from camera shake starts to have an impact on your photography. You can still take a picture at this shutter speed without a tripod, but you’ll have to make a conscious effort to keep the camera completely still. I usually put my camera on continuous fire mode, take a deep breath in, hold the camera as close to my face as possible, and hold the button down as I exhale. This gives me about 4 or 5 photos, and out of them one will be really good.
A lot more lenses feature image stabilization these days. You’ll definitely want to have that turned on when you’re shooting with this particular setting. Anything to counteract camera shake counts.
1/15 of a second
At this shutter speed, the water from waterfalls starts to blur in your photos. It will only be a slight blur, but you’ll definitely notice it. I use this shutter speed when I want to convey a sense of motion using subjects that don’t move too fast. You might want to use it photograph a subway train moving by, or a horse racer just making it past the finish line.
Because this shutter speed will definitely blur your subject, you absolutely need to bring a tripod with you. There’s simply no way around this. It’s the only way to keep the rest of your scene sharp.
1/5 of a second
This is the ideal shutter speed for photographing waterfalls or moving fog. When you shoot at this speed, water blends into itself, giving waterfalls a misty and calm sort of look. You may need to experiment a bit with this one. The picture you want to create might not happen at exactly 1/5 seconds, but it’s usually pretty darn close. As with any shutter speed over 1/60 of a second, carry a tripod.
We’re starting to get into night / twilight photography here. I wouldn’t want to use this shutter speed unless the sun has already gone down. One second might not seem like a lot to you and I, but it’s practically an eternity from your camera’s perspective. That’s a long time for light to collect on the sensor. If there’s any remaining daylight, it will overpower the shot and leave you with washed out colors, or worse, a completely white image.
This shutter speed is ideal for capturing cityscapes at twilight. I’m not talking about the twilight that happens before the sun has gone down, but after. Moving cars will look like streaks, and city lights will be very bright and colorful. Use this shutter speed when you want cars to having a slight sense of motion, but not so much that their streaks take up the entire frame.
This is the true realm of night photography. Most night shots will be taken around 5 seconds. It all depends on how much light you’re getting from the outside world. If you’re on a busy intersection with lots of lights, this setting will be perfect. But if you’re isolated from the action, you may need to increase your shutter speed slightly.
At 5 seconds, the headlights from any moving car will almost certainly take up a huge portion of the frame. The closer the car is to you camera, the bigger the effect. If the car is off on the horizon, it will probably take a bit longer to cover the same distance. Keep this in mind as you plan the shot and map out the streaks of light.
30 seconds / Bulb mode
30 seconds tends to be longest your camera will allow you to keep the shutter open before going into bulb mode. At 30 seconds, images at night can start to become oversaturated with colors. You may want to use it to get very long light trails from cars and other objects passing by, but be careful. Bright lights can easily overpower your image at this setting. Things can get too bright very quickly.
And then there’s bulb mode. With bulb mode, you can keep the shutter open as long as you want. Do you want to do a 30 minute exposure? No problem. In bulb mode, you can. I like to use bulb mode to photograph the stars as the planet turns. It creates an interesting motion blur as they arc past the horizon.
30 minutes to one hour of moonlight is actually enough to light up the surroundings and get a complete photograph. You’d swear the pictures were taken in the middle of the day!
There’s one slight disadvantage to bulb mode exposures. They have a tendency to drain your battery. I hate to say it, but you’ll probably need to supervise your camera during the process. You’ll want to be there just in case the battery runs out in the middle of one of those long exposures. Believe me. It happens more times than you’d like it to.
As you can see, there is an enormous range of shutter speeds to play with, and we’ve only scratched the surface. These are just the most well known ones. There are tons in between for you to experiment with. Hopefully what you’ve learned here will help you get started.
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